The national debate about the constitutionality of the Department of Health and Human Service’s (HHS) mandate requiring Catholic and other objecting religious institutions to pay for contraception, sterilization procedures, and abortifacient drugs is unlikely to go away anytime soon. On Friday, the Catholic bishops rejected the administration’s compromise for its phony “accommodation” of religious liberty. And over the weekend, more than 100 leaders, scholars, and journalists representing a multitude of faiths joined forces to label Obama’s measly olive branch as “unacceptable.”
This debate is ultimately about religious freedom and remains so.
But the debate is also having the interesting side effect of throwing a perhaps unwanted limelight on the reality that the Catholic laity is, in fact, deeply divided on a tangential issue: the morality of contraception.
At first, the media was spinning the story as a live-or-die fight for women’s most basic health care needs. Now that enough people have pointed out that, a) it’s not exactly clear the pill and abortifacient drugs are particularly good for a woman’s body given their link to certain cancers, and b) that no one is talking about taking away anyone’s access to anything, the narrative has begun shifting to, ‘well most Catholic women use contraception anyway!’
Thankfully, we do not have a legal system based on the popular opinion of the day. Nonetheless, it is in fact true that the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception is not one that all, or even a majority, of self-described Catholics embrace.
Many are now citing the Guttmacher Institute study that found that 98 percent of Catholic women “have used contraception.” The White House even listed this statistic on its own blog in in its defense of the mandate.
We’ve also heard from young Catholic women who proudly defy their church’s most basic teachings on sexuality, and listened to sob stories of those who voluntarily enrolled in Catholic colleges only to suffer when the college would not provide them with something the college teaches is gravely immoral.
Others point to the latest polls, which show more than half of Catholic women support the mandate.
All of this begs a rather interesting question: Why is it that so many Catholic women reject the church’s teaching on contraception? Why is it that only so few Catholic women (no more than perhaps four percent by some estimates) practice natural family planning (NFP), the church’s only approved method of birth control?
My husband and I learned NFP in the same way that many Catholic couples do: in a pre-wedding preparation course. Even as a user and an advocate of the church’s family planning method, my experience was similar to that of most other Catholic women I know in that we found the the methodologies overly complicated, the classroom setting awkward, and the marketing corny and outdated.
The teaching itself is not outdated. As many Catholic writers have noted, this is not your grandmother’s “rhythm method.” The approach is based in modern scientific knowledge about a woman’s cycle. It requires observations of a woman’s fertile signs, and requires abstinence during the most fertile periods.
But the method of delivery and communication of the teaching is outdated. Many Catholic women who do practice NFP find themselves overwhelmed selecting from a slew of different methodologies, most of which come with confusing charts that look like they belong on a trading room floor, codes and symbols better suited to Cold War spy novels, and rules and warnings that would make anyone’s head spin.
And it is a tragedy, because those of us who are able to master NFP are amazed to discover how empowering it is to know every little turn of our body’s fertility, how liberating it is to have a full sexual life without ingesting a daily dose of artificial hormones, how useful it is when trying to get pregnant in the midst of a national fertility crisis, and how emotionally gratifying it is when the man in our lives respects our body and the fertility that forms an integral part of who we are.
It is in fact a great equalizer, because with NFP, the man can retain his fertility without making the woman shut hers off.
In short, the Catholic Church desperately needs to modernize its approach to teaching NFP, communicating its importance, and marketing the lifestyle benefits it brings to an audience of pantsuit-wearing, modern women deeply inculcated in a theology of the body where artificially suppressing fertility reigns supreme.
But for the first time in more than fifty years, the American public is arguing about contraception, something culturally we have taken for granted for decades. The moment is ripe for the church to renew and refresh its teaching on contraception. It is a season such as this when the church can open a window and let in a little fresh air, giving new life to an age-old teaching.
So while the HHS mandate continues to prove a grave threat against the religious freedom of American Catholics and all who object to providing the services it requires of employers, this is an extraordinary opportunity for the Catholic Church to re-catechize its own followers as well as the American public about a teaching of profound doctrinal importance.
It is a chance for the church to win women back to its teachings about human sexuality, which are designed to uplift and dignify women in a hyper-sexualized culture such as ours.
But then again, it would be a little awkward for the church to modernize its teaching if it is footing the bill for the very thing it is teaching against. What people don’t seem to understand is that the HHS mandate is a bill the church simply will not foot.
The Catholic Church will continue to fight for its basic First Amendment rights. But will it also take advantage of a rare opportunity to remind Catholics, and the world, just what its teachings on human sexuality are all about?
Ashley McGuire is editor of Altcatholicah.com.